Pulkuva-2 Airport. Saint Petersburg, Russia. 4.13 PM
Remington Steele held the phone closer to his ear; the reception was lousy.
"Can you repeat that, old friend? I'm afraid I didn't hear you," he almost shouted into the receiver.
When the answer came, he nodded in agreement, and scribbled down the address. "Of course," he said "But not at the Saigon, that place will be too crowded. Maybe it's better if we-"
The man on the other end suggested a better meeting place.
"Yes, that's perfect," Steele said with a smile. "Da Svenadhanya," he said under his breath as he hung up the phone and stood by the telephone booth.
He still had two hours ahead of him. The airport looked busy enough, so maybe it was safer to stay there. He looked down at his two bags - one bag too many now- he sourly realized.
"Why the hell did you have to kill him, Felicia?" he asked again. It was the same question he'd been asking over and over throughout flight, and the answer never changed. *She did it to save your neck, mate. That's why *
Steele bent down, picked up his suitcases and started to walk out. *She saved you because she loves you, more then you can ever love her back... Way more than you deserve,* he thought bitterly as he walked past the airport doors and flagged a cab. *Way more than you deserve from anyone.*
Nevsky's Prospekt. 6.15 PM
Walking down the traditional main street of town, Steele felt finally as if some air had been allowed into his lungs. The place was swarming with Russians coming and going. None of them looking very worried or hurried. He saw people stopping every twenty paces to greet someone they knew. For a big city, they were a friendly kind of citizens, he gathered. He had found his new lodgings not entirely appropriate, but satisfactory - at least for the time being. Then he had disposed of the extra suitcase and its contents in a futile attempt to get rid of all the memories connected to them.
Steele stood in the corner and waited for five minutes. He was on time, so where the hell was Commarade Bulbakov? he wanted to know.
Just as he was about to give up, a man bumped into him, rather roughly, and mumbled an excuse. Steele watched the man leave in a hurry and finally he cast his eyes down to the piece of paper that had been skillfully dropped into his own jacket pocket. It read: "Meet me outside the Admiralty, in fifteen minutes. If anyone is following you, I won't be there. Bulbakov."
Steele looked around, uneasy at his lack of precaution. Satisfied that there was no one following him, he started towards the pointed golden spare of the Admiralty.
The Admiralty, fifteen minutes later.
Panting, but dead on time, Steele reached the golden doors of the Admiralty. There were people busily hurrying everywhere, some of them hurrying to go nowhere. After five minutes passed with no sign of Bulbakov, Steele decided he had been followed and cursed his luck. He looked around, but couldn't find anyone suspicious.
"Misha!" he heard someone hiss behind his ear.
He turned around with a start. "Bulbakov?" he asked, not believing his eyes as the man in front of him smiled crookedly and hid his face, holding a finger to his mouth, and motioning for him to remain silent. "Kira Bulbakov, is that you?" Steele whispered again, still amazed.
What an astonishing change! Steele had known Bulbakov a long time ago; he had known him like he knew the back of his hand. But now he wouldn't have recognized him even if he had stood right in front of his eyes for fifteen solid minutes. He couldn't even remember the last time he had seen him. It had been six or seven years.
"Follow me," Bulbakov said, urgently.
Both men walked away from the busy center area of the Admiralty to streets even more remote and secluded. Steele was constantly looking around, but Bulbakov walked unconcerned, as if he were taking a Sunday stroll.
As they walked in silence, Steele stole a glance towards his old partner. Bulbakov was wearing a light summer suit, hat and cane included, and he looked as if he had just jumped out of an eighteen century Russian novel. He had a thick mustache, curled on the ends, and smoked a pipe.
*Maybe he's in disguise,* Steele thought. *Yes, why else would he be dressed like that? I have to beware of this man.*
Lieutenant Bulbakov was very well known in the Russian underworld as one of the most charming, enigmatic and dangerous art retrievers. His fees were extremely high, and he had never failed to obtain any item required of him. He was respected by his partners, loathed by casual allies and enemies alike and feared by almost everyone. After all, the man was active KGB.
Bulbakov led Steele into a small apartment on the south most end of Nekrostova prospekt. He sat heavily on a cheap plastic chair and motioned for Steele to do the same. Steele sat down, and accepted the glass of vodka Bulbakov offered.
"So, how have you been all this time? I lost track of you after Los Angeles," Bulbakov began friendly in Russian, only to be stopped by Steele's raised hands.
"Speak slower, please," Steele said, his Russian halting and heavily accented.
Bulbakov suppressed a grin, and then slowly continued. "Would you prefer if we spoke in English, my friend?" he asked amiably.
Steele nodded his approval, as he emptied his glass in one gulp. "If you don't mind," he said with a grin, a little ashamed.
"Very well. Whatever happened to you? Your Russian used to be very good," Bulbakov said, pouring another round of the strong clear beverage.
"Lack of practice, tovarich; just lack of practice."
Bulbakov smiled, understanding. *Yes, I lost your scent after you disappeared from Los Angeles, Remington Steele. Good thing you didn't lose mine!* Bulbakov thought, as he lifted his glass in a toast. *I would have hated the prospect of loosing a man like you, for even if you don't know it, you're doing me a great service.*
He smiled tightly. "Health!" he said, and emptied his glass again.
After an awkward silence, both men looked each other in the eye, as if to acknowledge the fact that pleasantries were over and it was time now to get down to business.
"So did the br..." Steele begun.
He was interrupted by a loud cough from Bulbakov, who pointed at the ceiling and walls, indicating the possibility of planted bugs.
"...other Chompsky arrived safely?" Steele finished, using the code name they had agreed for the book.*Dear God! I almost blew it*
As a rule, whenever he stayed in the Soviet Union, he behaved as if the rooms were always bugged. Anyone could be listening, CIA, KGB, MI6, Interpol, the Soviet Police....Anyone.
*What was I thinking!* Remington thought to himself as he looked at Bulbakov. *He's calm and steady as a rock, the rotten bastard!* he realized with a grin, liking the man in spite of everything.
"Da," Bulbakov replied, quite pleased. "Commarade Chompsky arrived yesterday. Unfortunately, his partner seems to have lost his flight," he continued, his voice taking on a dangerous edge.
Steele felt the dark eyes boring into him. Bulvakov was referring to the bookmark that came with the Quixote's first edition, the bookmark Steele was keeping as a safe conduct out of Russia, if need be. He debated for an instant whether he should negotiate right then, or if that would be too much of a hazard.
*Damn bugs!* Steele cursed silently. *I need to speak with him straight forward.* "Well, he must have been delayed for some reason, I'm sure," he tried.
"It'd better be a good reason," Bulbakov replied dryly.
"A very good reason," Steele added.
That very moment, the old telephone on a nearby stool rang twice and then went dead. Steele and Bulbakov waited in silence until finally the phone rang again. This time, Bulbakov waited three rings and picked it up.
"Trashkin, da," Steele heard Bulbakov say.
Then the man went into a fast gibberish Russian he couldn't follow, and he knew Bulbakov was doing it on purpose to keep him off balance. Steele could only get a few words of what was spoken. He heard "Are we safe?" and then "What has been done?" and then "Good!"
After that, Bulbakov hung up, and relaxed back in his chair. He casually picked up a small round stone from the table and threw it at the door. Instantly, a man equipped with an AK-47 stomped in and stood in attention. Bulbakov dismissed the man, apparently telling him he was released form his duty.
Steele looked at the guard, and then at Bulbakov, and then at the man again. He couldn't take his eyes out off of the gun. *Lord Jesus Christ, what have I gotten myself into?*
Bulbakov assessed Steele's reaction with an approving smile. *Good! He still has a cool head. I wonder what's he done with the bookmark? He must want something else, but what?*
While he considered this, Bulbakov took a moment to watch his old comrade in arms more closely. Misha hadn't changed much, at least not physically. He seemed much more serious than he used to be, but of course, under the circumstances, who wouldn't be?
He remembered the day he had met Misha by chance in Warsaw. He had asked the young man what he was doing there. He wasn't Russian, after all. Misha had replied that he was there in college. "Isn't Warsaw College exclusively for women?" Bulbakov had asked, and then chucked in amusement as Misha had smiled smugly, lifting an eyebrow in fake surprise. "Oh, and here I was thinking I had been so damn lucky!" he had said.
That Misha was so very unlike this one, Bulbakov thought.
He was brought back from his reverie when Steele put his glass down on the table with much more force than needed, asking, "What the hell was that man doing here? This was supposed to be just between the two of us!" His anger and fear were very well hidden behind his controlled tone of voice.
Bulbakov smiled. "The bookmark was supposed to come with the book!" he retorted. "It seems things are different now, aren't they?"
Steele sat back in his chair and poured another shot of vodka. He needed it badly. *How awkward,* he thought. *It's been quite a while since I needed a drink to stabilize my nerves. I must be slipping.*
"We'll come down to that soon enough," Steele said nonchalantly. "I assume the room is safe?"
"The whole building has been temporarily evicted. We're safe, for now," Bulbakov assured him. "Now, what do you want for the bookmark?"
"I need help," Steele said simply. "Co-operative help, from an old friend," he added, wording his request with deliberate calculation.
Bulbakov let out a bellow of laughter. This was unheard of! *Misha must really be desperate if he wants the KGB involved,* he mused. *He's always hated anything even barely concerned with politics, and yet here he is asking for our help. Well, not exactly our help, but my help. I wonder why he didn't go to Daniel?* He looked at Steele again, and suddenly saw the pain behind his darkened eyes. *Daniel will have to wait for now, poor old chap,* he thought.
Steele watched Bulbakov laugh and knew he was putting himself in a tremendous risk. He looked deep inside the man's eyes, seeking confirmation that he would get the help he so desperately needed. He saw the dangerous brightness of his smile, and something told him his request would be granted.
"Why do you keep doing this, Bulbakov? You don't need the money anymore," Steele said, partially out of curiosity and partially because he wanted to know what made the man tick.
"What do you mean, old chap?" Bulbakov asked, now in perfect upper class English accent. "I'm an honest officer, but I do need a little something for my retirement," he said, sarcastic all the way. "Do you have any idea how little the Komitet pays?" Though feigning hurt, he laughed heartedly again.
Steele smiled. *If you're an honest officer, then I'm a bloody Russian!* Then out of the blue, he asked, "Why is the bookmark so important?"
He saw Bulbakov's smile fade as quickly as an autumn lily. "That's not of your concern, commarade; best keep it that way," he said honestly.
He scrutinized Steele for a few seconds. *Is it possible that you've guessed the game, Misha? Have you figured out that the book is in code, and that the bookmark is the only key to break that code? Do you already know that book's worth less than nothing without the other piece, or was it just a wild guess? Eh, old friend? You are clever enough to see through the whole scheme, but are you a traitor, Misha?* He had to smile at that ridiculous notion. *No, not you. I think you still don't know what this is all about.*
Steele, on the other hand, was immersed in his own questions. He couldn't simply let it go. *I wish I could, my friend, I only wish I could,* he thought sourly. But there was something about this that seemed very wrong. The problem was that he couldn't pinpoint exactly what. He had the nagging feeling that he had been handled like a puppet, and he didn't like it.
*But how is that possible?* he wondered. He himself had thought of the plan; he had decided the where and how, and of course, he had provided the contact. It was true that he had been approached by Hawkes in the beginning but... *Dear God! Was Hawkes involved in this so deep? Had Bulbakov and Hawkes met first? *
Steele's head was spinning too fast. The Vodka was finally taking its toll on him, but he had yet another thing to settle.
"You will have the bookmark only if you provide me the necessary assistance. There will be no extra clauses, no small print. You will comply with my request, no questions asked on either side. Only then will you get what you want," Steele said, hoping against hope he had sounded firm, and wishing with all his heart that was the right choice to make.
Bulbakov looked at him with newfound respect and remained silent, as if toying with the idea in his head. *Boy, you've got guts!* he thought warmly *You know damn well I could have you thrown into a dark cell before you could say Don't! I could torture you and get what I want; I could kill you and get away with it so easily. You have no name and no country you have to answer to, but no country will protect you either... Oh, you are a brave man, Misha! Very brave, or completely crazy!*
He looked at Steele lazily. *But I'll listen to you, just because you and I were once friends. And anyway, what do I lose by listening?* "So what is your request?" Bulbakov asked coldly.
Steele took a deep breath and pressed on. That was the only thing he could do, after all.
"Two things," he said, equally cold. "First, I have reason to believe someone is -or will be- following me shortly. For both our sakes, I think they should be prevented from reaching me-"
"Good Lord, Misha!" Bulbakov said, visibly upset. "Interpol?"
"No, nothing like-"
"Surely not MI6!"
"Kira, for God's sake let me get a word in edgewise, mate!"
"Yeb Vas! Fuck you!" Bulbakov shouted, and then instantly composed himself. "Yes, of course. I'm sorry. Who, then?
"An American PI, my former associate, Laura Holt," Steele said, uneasily.
Bulbakov gaped at Steele in utter disbelief. His former associate? "Your former associate? How the hell did she-?"
"Never mind how or why, Kira. Suffice to say she's after me, and she could find me," Steele confessed, warily.
"You have to be kidding. You've eluded-"
"Trust me, mate; if anyone can find me, that someone is Laura," he said with finality, his cold stare telling Bulbakov he was most serious. "She might be traveling with two other people, two former employees of the agency," He scribbled down the names and handed the piece of paper to Bulbakov. "Mildred Krebs and Murphy Michaels."
Bulbakov studied the names. "Amerikanets, all of them?"
He saw Steele nod and wanted to curse, *Damn Americans, just my kind of luck!*
"So," Bulbakov continued, lowering the tone of his voice until it was nothing more that a whisper. "Would you like them detained?"
"Good Lord, no!" Steele said. 'Detained' meant being sent to some ugly Soviet prison in the Urals, or maybe even Lubyanka itself. He shivered involuntary at the mere thought of that place, the Soviet's most renowned place for politic prisoners.
Bulbakov smiled inwardly; he had expected this response. *Yes, the man still has that soft spot. He'd be a lousy KGB-- and a lousy CIA, for that matter. Daniel was right, after all*
"Well, then?" he inquired, all innocence now.
"I want her stalled," Steele answered. "I'll deal with her on my own terms when the time is right."
Bulbakov nodded his agreement asking, "What about the man and the other woman?"
"I couldn't care less about him-"
Steele began, and then stopped short, seeing the amused gleam
in Bulbakov's eyes.
*The bugger is testing me,* he thought.
Then suddenly realizing his last statement was very much like a death sentence, Steele added, "But I wouldn't like to see him harmed in any way. The other woman is very dear to me. Consequently, I would hate to see her in any distress," he finished with a confidence that belied his inner fears.
"What do you suggest then? They are American citizens, so there's not much I can do legally, without creating a diplomatic disaster."
Steele nodded again. Maybe he could still solve this. Bulbakov was being cooperative, even if not too enthusiastic.
"Perhaps the excellent Soviet customs committee won't be so excellent this time," he suggested. "Maybe the expedition of their Propkus is delayed by some inexplicable bureaucratic mistake."
Propkus were the papers foreigners were given upon entrance to the Soviet Union, since their passport and Visas were held until departure. No one could go around Russia without their Propkus in complete order or they could be legally shot by the police or the KGB.
Bulbakov smiled fondly. *You cunning son of a bitch!* he thought with amusement. *But the stalling won't really solve the problem, will it? If this woman is as dangerous as you say she is, then her menace should be permanently obliterated. Yes, maybe...*
"I think that could be arranged," Bulbakov said amiably.
Steele sighed his relief. "Just one more thing. If Miss Holt happens to notice the presence of your 'friends' involved in this, she'll make things even more difficult. So perhaps this matter should be handled through alternate channels."
"Of course," Bulbakov conceded. "Now, how will my men know your Miss Holt if she is traveling under an alias?
Steele shook his head and smiled. "She probably won't be."
"Do you have any pictures we can use to identify her?"
Steele looked down, trying to make a decision. He had feared it would come to this, but had hoped maybe it wouldn't
"I'm afraid it won't help much," he said, putting his hand in his pocket. "It's an old picture, but that's all I have." His voice suddenly sounded incredibly sad as he took the pocket watch out of his trousers and popped the lid open.
The sweet music flew through the air like a soft feather, muffled by the noise coming from the street. Steele pushed the button that released the watch from the case. Lifting the precious machine with great care, he retrieved the small passport portrait of Laura that had been hidden under the delicate device for years. He didn't even remember how long ago he had looked at it last, since his conscious mind was still denying her presence.
Steele thought the music seemed louder now and slightly moved his head to hear better. But no, the noise form the street was just the same. The music, he realized as he handed over the little portrait to Bulbakov's eager hands, was singing Laura's name.
Bulbakov put the photo away hastily, ignoring the watch altogether. "Now," he said, bringing Steele back from his daydream. "What's the other thing you wanted?"
Steele shook his thoughts away and promptly sat straight in his chair. He focused all his senses in the face of the man in front of him. This one was going to be tougher.
"I need someone legally released from a murder charge in Spain- and I emphasize the word legally. And I want her record wiped clean, as soon as possible."
"What? I can't do anything in Spain!"
"You'll find a favorable solution, I'm sure," Steele said, with much more confidence than he actually felt.
Bulbakov looked into Steele's eyes, trying to gauge the man's intentions, and decided his old friend looked very serious.
"I'll see what we can do," Bulbakov smiled, as he stood up and offered Steele his hand.
Steele took the hand and shook it firmly. "Spasibo." -Thank you.-
Bulbakov merely smiled, and then left the room.
"Da Svedhanya, commarade," Steele muttered, sinking down on the creaking chair.
Krashna Moskva House, 11.43 PM.
After the long flight, and the even longer day he had endured, Steele's shower didn't do much to revive him. What he needed were eight or ten hours of solid sleep. He walked over to the bedroom, neatly putting his clothes aside, and laid on the small creaking bed uneasily. He looked at the phone on the night stand, remembering he had told Bulbakov to call him the minute they heard from Laura. He hoped the call would never come, but he was kidding himself if he didn't admit his innermost desire was to see her again.
He still couldn't believe Bulbakov had agreed to all his demands without much complaint; that was not like him.
He shifted on the bed and shut his eyes, trying to forget his many concerns. The day was still bright, and that felt completely surreal, for even though it was almost midnight, the summer afterglow leaked through the blinds of his window. Steele shifted once more and felt the bulge in his pocket.
Warily, he stood up, and taking the watch out, began walking to the window. He opened the blinds. The Neva River streamed unhurriedly not far away, and the streets were empty.
"Spokoiny nochi, Peter" -Good night, Saint Petersburg- he muttered sadly.
He stood there for a long time, listening absently to the melancholic music over, and over, and over.